In the tactical repertoire of Indian leaders is a new kind of state-sponsored oppression — bulldozer politics. It is being legitimised and being used across geographies and conflicts.
This new form of state and non-state coercion, deployed in selective ways, is not really meant as a resolution of any conflict, but a convenient and effective favoured tool used by certain leaders to gain political mileage and win approval of large chunks of the electorate.
Also, its implementation is being facilitated by formal yet nebulous laws and informal practices that give substantial leeway to the state.
The bulldozer is being positioned as a metaphor to “clean up.”
It has metaphorically and literally become a symbol of destroying evil. It is the new punisher. Supposed to be targeting those violating the fabric of society, it is meant to deter anti-socials who are stone pelters, rioters, communal elements and those who destroy public property as a sign of protest. Hawkish leaders are typically perceived to be stronger and more uncompromising than their dovish counterparts.
But there are certain questions to be answered. Is the use of bulldozers covered under specific laws? Does it give a chance of appeal to those losing their property? Is this action legal? How did it suddenly spring up as an act of retaliation against wrong-doers?
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The Supreme Court observed that demolitions can't take place without following due process. It heard a petition against the Uttar Pradesh government's move on razing houses of those accused of violence.
The Supreme Court said, “Demolitions have to be in accordance with law, they cannot be retaliatory.”
The Uttar Pradesh government and the civic authorities of Prayagraj and Kanpur were asked to respond to a Supreme Court notice on demolitions before the next hearing on 21 June. “Everything should look fair...we expect the authorities to act only in accordance with the law. Ensure safety so that nothing untoward happens,” said the judges.
On petitioners asking the court to order a stop to “illegal demolitions” in Uttar Pradesh, the judges said: “We can't stay demolitions. We can say go in accordance with the law.”
Srinivas Kotni, an eminent senior lawyer in Delhi, said: “The governments are also bound to follow due process and protect rule of law. Any civilised society should endeavour for this. These are extremely sensitive issues which are bound to attract both extreme views. The government must ensure fair play at any cost.”
“In its excitement to send a swift and clear message of zero tolerance towards violence, the government may end up in punishing the innocent without a proper trial which is the hallmark of an adversarial legal system. Furthermore, such action will also mean that the innocent family members of the messengers of crime are stuck in the crossfire between the State and the criminals. Jingoistically and from a purely emotional standpoint the action of the government in swiftly sending the message across to the rioters may seem the right thing to do, but it may have wider ramifications for the society and country at large,” he added.
The Uttar Pradesh government asserted it had followed the law and had only razed homes that were illegally built. Solicitor General Tushar Mehta said that the demolitions had been carried out “irrespective of community”.
“The due course of law is followed for demolitions. The media links the demolitions with political statements unnecessarily,” said senior lawyer Harish Salve on behalf of the UP administration.
“If the house has been constructed without following any laws at all then they can't say that they should not even be touched,” Solicitor General Tushar Mehta argued, adding that the petitions were based on “misconceptions and politics”.
Legal experts say that this bulldozing process is done under the cover of municipal building planning laws.
Is there any law in India which prescribes the demolition of a convicted person’s house as the penalty for any offence?
This is precisely why brute force is used saying there have been violations of municipal planning laws. Working in sync with the local planning bodies allows the state government to clear itself of any allegations of excess.
“It is but natural for a serious Government to send a strict message to rioters who indulge in deplorable conduct of destroying public property and using violence to put across their point of view on various socio-political issues,” said senior lawyer Ravinder Singh Sethi.
He added: “The concepts and principles of rule of law and due process have to be adhered to for the larger good. Further brainstorming is a dire need to formulate a policy which has wider acceptance and sends out a clear cut message.”
It is therefore clear that proper discussions with society stakeholders are required to iron out flaws in the current actions. These Rambo-esque gestures might fetch votes but are they within the ambit of law?
In the minds of the general populace the “bulldozer” shows zero tolerance for musclemen, mafia, land-grabbers and thugs. There is no justice delayed or denied. In one fell swoop large parts of society feel happy and secure that their government is no wilting lily. It knows how to flex muscles and show pushback.
This works brilliantly in winning elections too.
Experts say it is time to introduce time-bound summary trials so that these cases don’t stretch for decades. Re-introducing the jury system is another idea. Radical changes are needed in the criminal justice delivery system.
The idea of putting the fear of God in the minds of “wannabe rioters” is great but India needs to devise mechanisms which are strictly legal. In the present bubble, a lot of the action is taking place utilising grey areas. That needs to stop.
The author is CEO of nnis. Views expressed are personal.
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